I was digging through the basement at my dad's place recently and ran across the sleeping bags we used when we went camping 50 years ago. Dad got them at Sears in 1963, along with most of the other camping gear we used for decades. Sleeping in them in tents, pop-up campers, and several times out under the stars, those bags have seen some hard use. They've been retired to comforter status due to their wear, but the zippers still work and they'd still function as a lightweight sleeping bag today.
If you have a sleeping bag tucked away as part of your BOB, or just use one occasionally for getting away from civilization, you want it to last for a long while. Taking care of a sleeping bag isn't difficult, but it does take some thought and time.
- Before you unpack your bag and get ready to crawl in for a much-needed rest, take some time to clear the area you want to lay it on; rocks, sticks, insects, and cacti will puncture a sleeping bag and prevent a good night's sleep. They will also damage your bag, making it less efficient and harder to use. A down-filled bag with a hole in it is worse than you'd imagine.
- Using a ground cover will put a layer between you and the dirt. This will prevent heat loss through conduction and keep your bag cleaner and drier. A foam pad is great if you have one, but a waterproof piece of plastic will at least keep you from absorbing the moisture from damp soil.
- Cots, hammocks, and air mattresses have their uses. If you're in a semi-permanent location, do what you can to get your sleeping bag (and you) off the ground. All three are also easy to move out of the way in the morning to free up floor space.
Keep It Dry
Water is a great conductor of heat. Since the reason for using a sleeping bag is to prevent body heat from getting too far from your body, you want to keep your bag as dry as you can.
- Use a shelter if at all possible: Tent, cabin, debris hut, snow cave, whatever you have or can make to keep the weather off of you and your stuff.
- If you're keeping the weight of a BOB down, a bivvy sack like the one that came with my surplus ECWS sleeping bag is a good idea. Bivvy sacks are more than just a cover, but not quite a tent. A proper bivvy sack will “breathe” and let moisture out, but keep droplets from getting in, which is why the Army uses Gore-Tex fabric for theirs. Gore-Tex can be expensive and hard to find, so I've dug up plans for a cheaper, more common material: Tyvek. (Another good version is found here.)
Tyvek is the white plastic you see wrapped around new home construction as a vapor barrier. The heavy home wrap version is water-proof and very tear-resistant, and is easy to find if there is any new construction going on in your area. Ask around, or check the dumpsters for scraps large enough to use. You can also buy it by the roll; a 9 foot wide x 100 foot long roll goes for about $110 at home improvement stores (I don't have any experience with the Chinese version sold online) if you need enough to outfit several people or want to experiment with making your own tent. Tyvek doesn't hold stitches, though, so you can't sew it together; you'll need to use tape on the seams instead. You can find the tape in the same home improvement stores.
- Humidity from your body and breath gets trapped inside your sleeping bag, so take time to air out your bag whenever possible. If weather and time allow, turn it inside out and hang it up somewhere to dry for an hour or two every day, preferably before storing it. Occasional sunlight will kill any mold or bacteria that might cause sour odors, but the UV component of sunlight will also start breaking down most plastics, so be careful.
Keep It Clean
Since it is unlikely that you will be showering every night before crawling into you bag, you need to take steps to keep the inside clean. You want it clean for a variety of reasons -- mainly hygiene and sanitation -- but also because dirty, oily cloth wears out faster than clean cloth. Sleeping bags are a pain to launder in good times, so keeping them clean in difficult times makes sense.
- Use a liner. If you're going to spend more than a few nights in a sleeping bag, invest in or make a liner for it. A flannel sheet folded in half with some Velcro tabs to hold it to the inside of the bag is a lot easier to wash than the whole bag. A good liner will also boost the insulation of the sleeping bag, making it more comfortable in cold weather.
- Pajamas are an option and make sense if you are staying in bear country. You do not want to crawl into a bag wearing clothes that you wore while cooking food if bears are around; they'll just think you're a burrito. Wearing clean socks or washing your feet before bed are advised, since feet tend to stink after a day of walking and that stink will stay with the bag for a long time.
- Don't wear clothing inside the bag unless it is needed for insulation. Traveling all day, with the various tasks involved, means your clothes are likely going to get dirty. Crawling into a bag wearing dirty clothes is just going to make the inside of the bag dirty. It will also make your clothes damp from your overnight perspiration, and therefore less comfortable/insulating for the next day.
- Keep bug sprays and other petroleum products away from the bag. Most sleeping bags are made of synthetic materials that are petroleum based, so fuels and bug sprays will deteriorate them. This goes for the inside of the bag as well! If you have doused yourself with bug spray during the day, try to wipe off as much as you can before crawling into your bag or put on pajamas to keep it off of the material.
- Spot clean as needed. A damp rag and mild soap will usually take care of most spots of dirt; read the tag or directions that came with the bag for recommended methods.
Get to know your sleeping bag before you need to use it. Make sure you have what you need to keep it working, or at least a work-around for common problems.
- Bags, packs, cases, and tents all tend to have zippers and they all tend to stick. Rub a candle down the length of the zipper when closed to lubricate the plastic teeth. Graphite from a common pencil works better in extremely cold weather, but doesn't last as long.
- Tears and rips are easy to patch with duct tape, but are best repaired with patches. Sewn-on or ironed-on patches should last the life of the bag. You do carry a needle and thread in your BOB, don't you?
- Have a back-up plan. If your zipper (the only moving part in the system, and the most likely to fail) blows out on the second day of a month-long trip, you should have a secondary way of closing your sleeping bag. Most of the multi-bag systems have redundant zippers when you put the bags together; the military ones have snaps as well. Pieces of 550 cord sewn every few inches along both sides of a busted zipper will keep most of the heat in.
- Most new mummy bags are best stored in a stuff sack. The fill, or insulation, works best when it is crammed into a small sack in a random manner. Compression sacks are stuff sacks with adjustable web straps sewn on. After stuffing the bag into the sack, you tighten the straps to force out as much air as possible, making a smaller package to haul around.
- Older bags and rectangular bags are normally stored rolled up. Typically you'll fold it in half lengthwise and roll from the top down to the bottom. Most bags designed to be rolled will have some sort of ties at the foot that go around the rolled up bag.
- If your bag is going to be stored for more than a few months, unroll or unstuff it once in a while to let it air out and regain its loft. This is also a good time to check it for rips and do whatever maintenance it may need.
- Make sure your bag is clean and dry before putting it away. There's not much worse than unrolling a sleeping bag at a campsite and finding that it has mold growing in it. (It tends to ruin the mood, and will make you quite ill if you choose to sleep in it.)
I've learned a few things over the years, and some of them I don't always remember that I know until asked about it. As always, if you have questions or would like to see a topic discussed, please leave a comment here or on our Facebook page and we'll see if anybody had the experience to cover it.